Obituaries in American Culture: A Review
November 30, 2012
Janice Hume’s Obituaries in American Culture has much to say about how Americans understand their lives by how they record their deaths.
The book’s theme: obituaries are part of a whole society’s experience; the media (in this case, newspapers) reflect the society back to itself; and one life can be an example of – and exemplar for – that larger society.
“An obituary distills the essence of a citizen’s life, and because it is a commemoration as well as a life chronicle, it reflects what society values and wants to remember about that person’s history.”
Author Hume studied more than 8,000 newspaper obituaries spanning a century to see what they revealed about America over time. The book, published in 2000 by the University Press of Mississippi, is very well researched, and has numerous footnotes and an extensive bibliography. Carefully reading the entire book would be most appropriate for a student of American history who appreciates the importance of such an academic study.
The thousands of newspaper obituaries that Hume analyzed mark three different periods in American history. (These are news obituaries, not family-prepared notices.) The first period was just before and just after the presidency of Andrew Jackson in the 1820s. The second period was just before and just after the Civil War. And the third period was just before and just after the inauguration of women’s right to vote in 1920.
The book is filled with intriguing findings; here are some of them:
Obituaries of the pre-Jacksonian era (1818) emphasized men who held public office or had military service, especially veterans of the Revolutionary War. Any kind of connection to George Washington was mentioned; such a link might be the only reason for a newspaper to select the deceased for an obituary at all.
Obituaries of the post-Jacksonian era (1838) were moving beyond the lifetimes of those who had lived during the Revolution. These obituaries were also embracing a more egalitarian as well as a more diversified society. A greater variety of occupations were mentioned; even military veterans were described differently. Characteristics such as benevolence, intellect, and industry were emphasized instead of traits like bravery, gallantry, and boldness. “The useful, efficient, even businesslike patriot” of the new era “had replaced the hero-patriot venerated in obituaries just 20 years earlier.”
The post-Jacksonian era obituaries were also recognizing the role of the pioneer, the frontiersman, the “amiable adventurer.” Any connection to famous members of this archetype, like Daniel Boone or Davy Crockett, was noted.
The obituaries of this time also were more likely to mention Christianity, showing the influence of the Second Great Awakening religious revival.
The role of women can be seen mainly by their absence, as the vast majority of obituaries were of men. When women were mentioned, it was usually by their relationship with husbands, fathers, sons, or brothers. Women were described as being pious, humble, and devoted to domestic duty. But women were already less innocent and obedient in 1838 than they had been in 1818.
Obituaries just after the Civil War revealed regional differences that had become greater because of that conflict. (The author studied newspapers from the North, the South, and the border areas of the country.) Obituaries of men in the North noted their heroic service in the war just past. In the South, meanwhile, there was “solace in their gentlemanly virtues and ability to succeed in business despite the realities of Reconstruction.”
Post-war obituaries were also much less likely to mention any illness or the cause of death. “Exhausted from the horrors of war, Americans began distancing themselves from the physical process of dying.”
Women were still greatly under-represented in these obituaries, but the proportion of women was increasing. And although women were most likely to be remembered in relation to prominent men, occupations of women were beginning to be pointed out.
Obituaries in the 20th century revealed an America that had greatly changed, “spiritually, culturally, economically, and politically.” Hume found that “wealth and industry remained the most striking attribute in obituaries in both 1910 and 1930, indicating a capitalistic society that might have looked more to economic power than to political power as an indicator of what was worthy of remembering in a life.” Interestingly, however, there was more of a nod to the contribution to charity in 1930 than to just the accumulation of wealth, as had been the case in 1910.
Women usually were not mentioned any more frequently – still only around one in five obituaries. But by 1930 those women who were included in obituaries were “stronger, more powerful, and much more likely to be leaders, recognized as voices in the public debate over a variety of issues.”
As well, the new century's obituaries marked a change for African Americans. Although still only sparsely represented, there were some black men in 1930 who were included “for their own professional accomplishments, not simply because they were extremely old or had some sort of connection to Lincoln, Washington, or Jefferson.”
Other social factors are revealed in obituaries. “The virtue of religious piety, so important in the Jacksonian era that it dominated obituary columns, had all but disappeared a century later.”
In all three time periods there was a shared recognition of the importance of being American. “Numerous mentions of the American Revolution, pioneer spirit, and links with historic events and symbols associated with American public memory indicate that virtues or other attributes considered uniquely American were especially important in all eras.”
One could conclude that obituaries are part of the collective wave through history that continues to create what Abraham Lincoln called “the mystic chords of memory.”
Hume wraps up her book by asking, “What can modern obituary writers – or readers – learn from these historic American newspaper obituaries?”
Most significantly, the book's reader learns, obituaries demonstrate that an individual's life can be most fully understood in the context of the larger society. “Obituaries provide a unique window to examine changing American culture because they offer a rare link between the average citizen and the society.”
“Modern as well as historic newspaper obituaries harbor a wealth of information about a changing, always dynamic American society.” Just imagine: future historians will study today's obituaries to note the changes in Barack Obama’s America as much as current historians assess past transformations.
“Obituaries show how Americans viewed death and, perhaps more important, how they valued the singular American life.”
A typical 19th century obituary, Hume writes, would include the statement "'in life we are in the midst of death."
She ends her book by noting, however, that her study of newspaper obituaries found that "in death we are in the midst of life."